The Canadian federal government of Justin Trudeau yesterday responded to a group of lawsuits by agreeing to pay C$750 million to the survivors of the “Sixties Scoop” program, in which 20,000 First Nations children were removed from their parents’ households and placed with non-indigenous foster or adoptive parents.
The plaintiffs claimed that this caused them mental and emotional problems, in addition to the loss of their ancestral culture. Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister, announced the agreement.
“I have great hope that because we’ve reached this plateau, this will never, ever happen in Canada again,” Marcia Brown Martel, now Chief of the Beaverhouse First Nation, said of the decision. Martel was removed from her home as many as ten times before 1972. She and her sister were among the original plaintiffs. From the 1960s to 1980s, some of the children were sent out of the country to the United States, Europe or New Zealand. Some of the plaintiffs say they were abused by their foster families and others do not. A separate settlement has been offered to the 150,000 children who were instead sent to institutions, such as boarding schools.
“There is also no dispute about the fact that great harm was done,” wrote Ontario Supreme Court Justice Edward P. Belobaba in a preliminary decision in February. “The ‘scooped’ children lost contact with their families. They lost their aboriginal language, culture and identity. Neither the children nor their foster or adoptive parents were given information about the children’s aboriginal heritage or about the various educational and other benefits that they were entitled to receive. The removed children vanished ‘with scarcely a trace.’ ” He did concede that the founders of the program meant well, but major sources agree it was subject to major culture clash, with social workers removing children from situations that were later found not to be abusive or neglectful.
According to a lawyer for some of the plaintiffs, Jeffrey Wilson, this is the first time anyone has argued that the loss of a cultural identity in a lawsuit in a Western country: “No First Nations case yet to this day has asked the question as to whether or not the loss of identity is an actionable wrong. Aboriginal title to property has been litigated, aboriginal title to identity has not,” he told the The Guardian.
The First Nations people make up approximately four percent of Canada’s population, at about 1.4 million people, and they suffer disproportionately from poverty, violence, addiction and crime.
Canada is not the only country where native children were taken away from their families. From 1910 to 1970, the Australian government collected Aboriginal children, who came to be called the Stolen Generations, and relocated them to schools and other institutions far from their communities. In 1978, the United States passed the Indian Child Welfare Act to curtail similar actions toward Native American children.
Manitoba was the first of Canada’s provinces to apologize for the scoop program, in 2015. The federal government has also announced plans to make a public apology.